A service experience will fail when the experience doesn’t match user expectations. That can occur at any time during a user’s service journey, caused by touchpoints communications, the environment, poor technology, poor customer experience, frankly, whatever.

Sometimes a service experience can be recovered. But it requires a delicate balance including what caused the failure, the severity of the failure, and user’s preconceptions of the failure. But most of all, service recovery depends on the provider’s willingness to invest in recovery. A service recovery plan will help providers who are undecided on whether to recover a user’s experience, and when and how.

To be clear, service experience is not the same thing as customer service. Customer service is engagement between customers and service staff. Within a service journey, customer service plays a larger or smaller role depending on the service. A customer experience, however, results from a service journey, for which service recovery is based.

Not All Service Recovery is Appropriate

J.M. Davis invited two business clients from out of town to a dinner in downtown Washington, D.C., where they had their choice of more than 4,000 eateries nearby. It just so happened, though, their choice of a local farm-to-table chain, flubbed one of their meals.

When the dinner companion complained, the waiter said he would return with another meal “in 2 minutes.” A half-hour later and complaints along the way, the plate arrived. That prompted the manager to come over and offer to comp the entire meal and pay in full for another visit. The dinner guests looked at each other bemused, it seemed an inappropriate gesture—overly generous—to comp a meal worth hundreds of dollars and subsequently another meal over an undercooked dinner.

What benefit did the restaurant stand to gain from this overly generous offer?

Reasons to Recover a Service

Caveat emptor (Let the Buyer Beware): Service providers can always attempt to recover a service experience, but there are never certainties, that either the user will be satisfied by a recovery attempt, or that the service provider will be rewarded by their attempts. Nonetheless, many providers aim to achieve outcomes, even if they don’t quite know who to achieve them, or even if they are possible.

Reasons providers pursue a service recovery strategy, include:

• To satisfy customers with perceived justice

• To increase the perceived value of the service

• To preventing negative word-of-mouth

• To manage the rate of failures, and to improve

• For training staff

• As an attempt toward developing customer loyalty

Users Can be Difficult to Satisfy

Some users will not be satisfied no matter the circumstance. If the user believes the failure was severe, there is less likelihood of recovery. Recoveries only succeed if the service provider’s redress exceeds the user’s perception of the service outcome. Additionally, first-time users are less likely to be satisfied and likewise, will be less receptive to recovery attempts.

A Customer Rage Study, originally conducted on behalf of the White House Office of Consumer Affairs, found that roughly 70 percent of those customers who are dissatisfied with an experience feel rage toward the service provider. Among those, 57 percent will never do business with the company again. Breaking that down rage even further, 15 percent tell the pollsters they want revenge. The survey results have been fairly consistent over two decades.

The Need for a Service Recovery Plan

Pulling together some of the considerations, recoveries are dependent on the cost of attempts, the severity of the failure, and the service provider’s motivation. An organization’s service recovery plan should capture these considerations to help the service provider decide on whether and how to recover.

Begin by reviewing the Service Recovery QuadrantTM showing how a plan should address the various considerations, including severity, cost, and user’s familiarity with the service.

The center of the Service Recovery QuadrantTM represents a neutral point (blue dot) to depict a user’s satisfied experience. A dissatisfied experience is when the user’s experience moves off neutral and shifts to one of the quadrants—based on the service provider’s assumption. A shift to the lower half reflects a greater likelihood of recovery, due to user familiarity and a less severe failure. A shift to the upper quadrant will be more difficult to recover.

An Incident Log

A service recovery program is built from an organization’s types of failures. An Incident Log, like the one below, will help to track. The log will show patterns of failure over time and those that can be addressed immediately. But knowing that failure is inevitable, the log results will feed an outline for a recovery plan. The responsibility for keeping a log current and accurate should fall to someone with sufficient authority within an organization.

Service Recovery Incident Log Best Practice: A valuable incident report should record failures that occur within 24 hours. And it should be filled out with staff who were involved, in order to create an accurate account. It is best to compile the log results into a monthly report, possibly with a dashboard for monthly comparison.

The Plan

The chart below is an outline for how to align and format a service provider’s redress offerings. Each recovery attempt is an escalation of the prior step.

Readers might want to become familiar with the format by as an exercise building their own plan using a familiar service. How does, or would, say, Starbucks recover a failed service experience? Some Starbuck’s baristas are quick to offer free drink coupons to improve a user’s experience. But how far will a barista or the company go to try and exceed a user’s experience? And, should they?


Service failure is inevitable and the causes can be anything, frankly. Even if it’s the user’s mood, the atmospherics, or anything else outside the service provider’s control, all failures will be based on the user’s perceived experience, and the difference from their expectations.

Against this backdrop, some services can be easily recovered, and worthwhile for the service provider. On the other hand, some users will never be satisfied and are not work the service provider’s efforts or resources.

A service recovery plan, however, will help service providers take these considerations and determine when and how to recover a service, and by whom with which resources.


* The Service Recovery QuadrantTM is proprietary to the International Service Design Institute, but can be used as a guide on considerations involved.

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